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An Economic Platform That Is Ours

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Socialism's all the rage. "We Are All Socialists Now," Newsweek declares. As the right wing tells it, we're already living in the USSA. But what do self-identified socialists (and their progressive friends) have to say about the global economic crisis? In the March 23 issue, we published Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher Jr.'s "Rising to the Occasion" as the opening essay in a forum on "Reimagining Socialism." TheNation.com will feature new replies to their essay over the coming weeks, fostering what we hope will be a spirited dialogue.

About the Author

Saskia Sassen
Saskia Sassen (Columbia University, www.columbia.edu/~sjs2/) blogs on finance for the Huffington Post, and regularly...

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As Barbara Ehrenreich and Bill Fletcher note in their essay, we lack a plan for a post-capitalist society. I find the idea of such a plan almost an impossibility. But we do have the elements of a map of what's to be done by the left--including socialists and other adherents of critical politics--with inconsistencies and many blanks. Together, several comments in this forum begin to draw such a map. Henwood, Solnit and Wallerstein each argue for interventions in response to today's crisis that are either already underway or that we can work on now.

I want to add one element to that map. Let's focus on the work that needs to be done in our country. It is vast--we need to produce housing, healthcare, build urban parks and develop urban agriculture, clean our waters, weatherize all housing, and so on. Doing that work would absorb all available workers, and then some. It would require those who are skilled in the task at hand to train the unskilled. In short, we would all be occupied.

The reason that beginning such a long term project is more of an option now than in the last fifty years is that the government has shown that it is willing to pump money into the economy. Pity it has been pouring most of it into rescuing zombie banks.

Over the last few months we have gotten used to hearing talk of the trillions it will take to rescue our financial system. But it would take billions, not trillions, to begin the work that needs to be done. If we think in terms of the billions of the economy, rather than the trillions of high-finance, it all looks better. Indeed, this project only really makes sense as part of a larger effort to reconstruct key building blocks of our political economy away from vulture capitalism. And there are over 6,000 small traditional deposit-based banks in the US that also function in billions or millions and are doing fine and can be channels for offering credit to the small to medium-sized firms that could be engaged in this kind of effort.

What I have in mind is a widely distributed range of "growth sites" that incorporate more and more people. Clearly, this is not a revolution. This would occur within capitalism, but it begins to lay the ground for a widespread and distributed economic network, which can function as one platform for gaining entry into the economic "system" and begin to relate to it as ours. It is a sort of parallel to the notion of an organizational infrastructure, which the left has long viewed as necessary to take us past this type of brutal capitalism.

In a capitalist economy, the government needs channels to use taxpayers' money to work on social needs, needs that cannot easily be met through market mechanisms. Infrastructure repair/development and greening are two key mechanisms for governments to channel money to localities, small and medium sized firms and indirectly, households.

Just a few numbers to illustrate what we could do.

Spending on infrastructure creates jobs. For example, one US government study concludes that for each $1 billion of federal spending on highway construction nationwide, 47,500 jobs are generated annually. The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) estimated that the US needs to invest an average of $300 billion a year over the next five years to repair our overall infrastructure. It documents that most components of America's infrastructure are poor or mediocre, and all sectors except aviation have declined since 2001. For instance, by 2007, 26 percent of the nation's 599,893 bridges were rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. According to EPA estimates, the US needs to invest $390 billion over the next twenty years to replace existing waste treatment systems and build new ones to meet increasing demand. The EPA's 2004 Clean Watersheds Needs Survey calls for an estimated investment of $134.4 billion for wastewater treatment and collection systems, $54.8 billion for combined sewer outflows and $9 billion for storm water management. If this is not done, then we risk losing the gains that have been made in cleaning up the nation's rivers, lakes, and streams since the enactment of the Clean Water Act in 1972.

For a list of all kinds of infrastructure projects that would together cost less than $1 trillion and would make an enormous difference along the lines I describe above, see this article.

Other Contributions to the Forum

Barbara Ehrenreich & Bill Fletcher Jr., "Rising to the Occasion"

Immanuel Wallerstein, "Follow Brazil's Example"

Bill McKibben, "Together, We Save the Planet"

Rebecca Solnit, "The Revolution Has Already Occurred"

Tariq Ali, "Capitalism's Deadly Logic"

Robert Pollin, "Be Utopian: Demand the Realistic"

John Bellamy Foster, "Economy, Ecology, Empire"

Christian Parenti, "Limits and Horizons"

Doug Henwood, "A Post-Capitalist Future is Possible"

Mike Davis, "The Necessary Eloquence of Protest"

Lisa Duggan, "Imagine Otherwise"

Vijay Prashad, "The Dragons, Their Dragoons"

Kim Moody, "Socialists Need to Be Where the Struggle Is"

Dan La Botz, "Militant Minorities"

Michael Albert, "Taking Up the Task"

Dave Zirin, "Socialists, Out and Proud"

Joanne Landy, "I Love Bill Moyers, but He's Wrong About Socialism"

Hilary Wainwright, "I Love Bill Moyers, but He's Wrong About Socialism"

George A. Papandreou, "The Challenge of Global Governance"

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